Reviewed: Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

Iron age.

Maggie & Me
Damian Barr
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

Though you might not think so, given the specialised nature of the genre, the British “high-concept” 1970s or 1980s coming-of age memoir is a crowded field. It can’t be easy to elbow your way to the front with a new conceit. Most of the good ones are already gone – football (Nick Hornby), camping (Emma Kennedy), food (Nigel Slater), music (everyone) – and it can’t be long before the “growing up a vegetarian skinhead on Sark during the three-day week” memoir or some such tome hoves into view. Damian Barr, the author of this one, is even running a pricey course in how to write them, so we have a right to expect much. What he has given us manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously.

Barr is perhaps best known for his Shoreditch House Literary Salons, in which you can sip a Gibson Martini while listening to the likes of Diana Athill, Maggie O’Farrell and Joanne Harris, all of whom have loyally provided handsome cover recommendations here. Barr has not always moved in such chichi circles, as Maggie & Me bracingly makes clear. While she was at war in the South Atlantic or battling the unions, he – gay, asthmatic, geeky – was dealing with all manner of bullies and tribulations on a rundown Scottish council housing scheme, most notably in the shape of his mum’s implausibly monstrous boyfriend, Logan.

Thus far, this is fairly standard for what is known in the trade as a “misery memoir”. But, perhaps because he was aware of this, what Barr seeks to do – when he remembers – is to plot the course of his turbulent, working- class adolescence against the imperious, battleship-like progress of Maggie through her years of influence. John O’Farrell has done this kind of thing with Labour politics as a backdrop but no one, to my knowledge, has done what Barr has done –or if they have, they haven’t done it with such sensational timing. My copy of Maggie & Me arrived about an hour before the titular heroine bowed out for the last time. I’m not suggesting that anyone connected with the book would “rejoice at that good news” but it will probably not do sales any harm – however, it could mean that some might (wrongly) see it as a speedy cash-in.

Though we do get the obligatory set dressing of pop groups and TV shows – there is a coy, lengthy riff on Hart to Hart – and though the period detail is ladled on like Ski yoghurt, unlike most volumes of this kind, Maggie & Me is short on jokes and long on raw, pungent atmosphere. Barr has a keen eye for wincingly evocative detail: the wooden tongs used to fish items out of the drum of the tumble dryer; the new, clear-plastic asthma inhaler that is the “latest in weedy boy technology”. On the wall of his childhood home hangs a free calendar given away by the local Chinese takeaway. All of this rings true and is expressed with a kind of grim lyricism.

Elsewhere, the touch is less sure and sometimes there’s an unconvincing neatness to some of the episodes. The vivid recollection of a teacher’s classroom speech about the ending of free school milk seems too good to be true. Though his mother’s description of his dad’s brassy new amour as a “pound shop Dolly Parton” is lovely, there were no pound shops in the mid-1980s. Would a parent really use Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver as a touchstone reference in conversation with primary-school-age kids? There are many examples of this false-memory syndrome and whether they’re the products of forgetfulness or fabrication, they harden the heart against the book.

Stylistically, Barr is a capable writer, if prone to lapses. Writing of the iconic Caledonian snack the Tunnocks Teacake, he mentions two different women using their nails to “crack the chocolate dome” without harming the mallow beneath twice in the space of a few chapters, which suggests either that he’s inordinately pleased with this image or that the book could have done with a keener edit. The ghastliness is somewhat unrelenting, as is the casual violence. Usually. Expressed. In. Staccato. Sentences. Like. This. Ultimately, what’s most deflating about the book is the transparent fraudulence of the whole Maggie angle. Mrs T is not so much shoehorned in as cheaply welded on in the form of a brief quotation at the beginning of each chapter and a hasty, muddled eulogy at the end. In Barr’s drama, Maggie doesn’t even have a bit part. She’s a voice-off. Very, very far off.

Barr writes of Thatcher: “I love her and hate her in equal measure.” Maggie & Me doesn’t plunge you into the grip of emotions quite so strong – but it may leave you just as conflicted.

Stuart Maconie presents “Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” on BBC Radio 6 Music. His most recent book is “Hope and Glory: a People’s History of Modern Britain” (Ebury Press, £7.99)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage